Leonard Slatkin, From Two Directions

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Leading an orchestra has never been easy, and even the most celebrated music directors generally leave mixed legacies in their wake. It should not be forgotten that the now-deified Leonard Bernstein had a tough time getting a favorable review when he was heading up the New York Philharmonic and that the Berlin Philharmonic all but banished its so-called "music director for life" Herbert von Karajan from the premises a few months before he died.

The National Symphony Orchestra's Leonard Slatkin, who will step down from his directorship in June, is not in the Bernstein-Karajan camp. Nevertheless, he has been a significant figure in Washington's musical history for more than a dozen years now and his overall effect on the NSO is likely to be the subject of controversy for years to come. And so this longtime Slatkin observer -- I first heard him conduct 25 years ago -- thought it might be helpful to frame some thoughts on his tenure in the form of a self-debate. As the reader will quickly discover, my own appraisal is distinctly, but genuinely, mixed. I decided to approach this exercise literally of two minds.

Tim Page One: Leonard Slatkin was hailed as a conquering hero when he came to Washington in 1996. Here was the man who was going to bring new vitality to American music, who was going to emphasize the word "national" in "National Symphony Orchestra," who was going to redefine the hidebound world of classical music for a fresh, eager and untapped audience.

Tim Page Two: It all seems terribly naive now, doesn't it? Today we're hearing some of the same chatter about Marin Alsop -- who might fairly be described as Slatkin in a pantsuit, affecting the same sort of studied informality and sharing some of the same tastes in conservative American composers. But do you really think that anybody could have worked all the miracles that were expected from Slatkin? Musical education has pretty much been eliminated in much of the United States, and a whole generation has come of age with little or no exposure to classical music. Most of our orchestras have been in trouble for years financially.

One: Well, there's still a good deal of intellectual interest in what Michael Tilson Thomas is doing with the San Francisco Symphony and in what Esa-Pekka Salonen did -- and what newly named 26-year-old maestro Gustavo Dudamel may do -- in Los Angeles. Moreover, they play to pretty full houses (as, I would add, does the NSO; I'm not sure that I would write off the orchestral concert as a spent force). But those other conductors offer genuinely engrossing contemporary music (as opposed to Slatkin's penchant for pastiche), deeply personal takes on familiar scores of the past (rather than gross, gimmicky rearrangements such as Mahler's graffiti on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony), festivals of substance and distinction (instead of once-over-lightly looks at film music or "Drums Along the Potomac"), and a fresh energy that has been hard to find in Washington for a long while.

Two: But there was that energy and excitement here in 1996! The NSO had come to sound sloppy, dispirited and disorganized in the years after Rostropovich stepped down, and Slatkin moved quickly to improve the playing, both singly and collectively, with some new hires, intensified rehearsals and what one of our less verbally adroit presidents used to call "the vision thing." Surely you won't deny that the NSO is a better orchestra than it was in 1995?

One: Well, it's certainly a more muscular orchestra. The first-desk players are much more reliable, across the board, and the cello section is one of the best around. But, at least when Slatkin is conducting, I find the collective sound loud and featureless a lot of the time, lacking the nuance and textural intricacy that I expect from a great orchestra. When the NSO is favored with a truly distinguished guest conductor -- Christoph von Dohn¿nyi, Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel come immediately to mind -- most of these problems disappear.

Two: But those men are such conservatives! At least Slatkin is out there, fighting for the future.

One: You're reading too much of Slatkin's publicity. Does the "future" need three separate performances of Saint-Sa¿ns's infinitesimal "Carnival of the Animals" over the course of a dozen years, all of them with the duo-piano team of Katia and Marielle Lab¿que? Just this year, we've heard two renditions of Franz Liszt's meretricious Piano Concerto No. 1 only a few months apart -- find me another orchestra that would inflict that on its audience! And Slatkin's choice of soloists seemed to come mainly from the music business promo roster (all those child prodigies -- mini-stars at 15, washed up by 20, the cruelest sort of planned obsolescence!) or from his inner circle -- pals such as the Lab¿ques, Emanuel Ax, Itzhak Perlman, the pianist Jeffrey Siegel (whom he actually took on a United States tour with the orchestra) and, for a while anyway, the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Let me remind you that one of his pet artists in the first part of his tenure was his wife, the soprano Linda Hohenfeld. Even if she had been up to the job -- which, in my opinion, she was not -- it was the sort of casting decision that inevitably made one wonder what was going on. Loyalty is an admirable trait in a human being, but rather less desirable in a music director, who needs to make tough decisions, and from the head rather than the heart.

Two: But what about all the new music he played?

One: Richard Danielpour? Michael Kamen? Stewart Wallace? Do you really want to hear any of those pieces again?

Two: Now you're being unfair. Slatkin and the NSO made far and away the best recording so far of John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 -- it won the Grammy in 1996. More recently, Slatkin led the University of Michigan School of Music in the first complete recording of William Bolcom's gigantic "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" (the NSO wanted to make the record with him but the production costs, with a professional orchestra, would have been prohibitive). Way back when, he led a superb performance of Luciano Berio's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra with the Lab¿que sisters -- who hardly limit their repertory to Saint-Sa¿ns, by the way. That series of concert preludes the NSO commissioned was a genuinely interesting and diverse look at what was going on in American orchestral composition. Slatkin has shown an aptitude for the musical minimalism that you have championed -- Philip Glass and Steve Reich -- and for the not-quite-minimalism of John Adams as well. And he has helped revive interest in some of the classic figures in American composition: Aaron Copland, Walter Piston (that haunting Symphony No. 2!) and Samuel Barber.


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